"By contrasting near-pristine Palmyra with inhabited and fished Tabuaeran, we are in a unique position to gather data that will ultimately help reef managers protect these vibrant and vulnerable habitats," Micheli said.
A tale of two atolls
Fieldwork at Palmyra and Tabuaeran began in 2007. On one trip, researchers including several Stanford undergraduates donned snorkeling gear and counted the number and variety of fish species along sample areas at various reefs. Preliminary results from the underwater census suggest that the two atolls host very different communities of animals, in part because of the impact of fishing.
"Palmyra has some of the highest densities of sharks and other large fish of any coral reef in the world," said Douglas McCauley, a graduate student working with Micheli. "That's clear within seconds of jumping in the water there."
But at Tabuaeran, where fishing is a way of life, sharks and other large species are in short supply, McCauley said. "That was surprising, because Tabuaeran is a somewhat lightly populated island," he explained. "Most people arrived only a few decades ago, and fishing there is still very artisanal in nature."
Big fish grow and reproduce slowly, so their populations take longer to recover, he added. "It appears that it takes very little harvesting to reduce populations of these sensitive, large reef fish," McCauley said.
Trophy catches like sharks and the 100-pound bumphead parrotfish were the first to decline, he said. Highly prized by Tabuaerans, parrotfish have bottomless appetites that can alter the architecture of their coral homes. "The parrotfish's large size allows it to break off and crunch up whole branches of coral," McCauley said. "It plays a unique and important role in reef ecology that's si
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